Suppose you're someone who dreams of winning a high-level title—at the All American Quarter Horse Congress, let’s say, or at your breed’s national or world championship show. In your private moments, you see yourself standing in the winner’s circle, collecting a gold trophy and hearing the applause that’s just for you. Why shouldn’t you indulge in a fantasy like this? You’re an accomplished competitor with a talented horse and no shortage of desire. As far as you’re concerned, all you need is the right timing and a boost to your bank account, and you’ll be as tough a contender as anyone.
Or will you?
As an adult amateur who’s competed and won at this level since I was a youth exhibitor, I’ve learned there’s more—much more—to a first-place go than being a good rider on a good horse. While those attributes may get you to the arena gate, they’re essentially the same ones your rivals possess. For your best shot at finishing in front of them, you need another set of attributes, ones that add up to planning, planning, and more planning. You need to know how to create a ready-to-win roadmap, with no detail left unmanaged, and no controllable element left to chance. Otherwise, the smallest chink in your preparatory armor can be all it takes to ruin your chances and leave you making a long, disappointed drive back home.
Using this month’s World Championship Quarter Horse Show in Oklahoma City as my example, I’ll jump-start you on learning how to draft your own big-show blue- print. I’ll share the process I use to plan for the health, comfort, and safety of my World-winning gelding, Zippo LT (“LT”). I’ll give highlights of how my trainers and I peak him for top performance at just the right time. And, I’ll provide extra key tips known to veterans of the major shows, but often learned the hard way by first-timers.
Create A Team
Though you may picture yourself as the one in the spotlight, winning at competition’s upper level isn’t a do-it-yourself project. Even if you have the skills, confidence, and experience to show without the aid of a professional trainer, you’ll still need assistance from other people invested in your success. That’s why it’s important to create a team of people you can depend on and fully trust to help with every detail. The sooner you begin to build your team and establish a good working relationship with each member, the better off you’ll be.
Your trainer, vet, farrier, and parents, or significant other are among those whose help you’ll count on. Others, who may not be so obvious, include such helpers as these: the mechanic who’ll service your rig for the trip; the friend or family member who’ll take care of your place while you’re gone; the dry cleaner, seamstress, and hat shaper responsible for making your outfits look like a million; the co-worker who’ll take up your slack at your job; the driver, paid or unpaid, who’ll help get your horse to the show; the best friend who’ll be your emotional sponge; and the assistant (trust me, you’ll need one) who’ll help you get ready for your classes. Every exhibitor has a unique set of needs, so you might need other helpers as well.
While each of your team members will have a separate job, their cumulative efforts will add up to one critical benefit—the freed-up mental space you’ll need to devote full concentration to your performances. The fewer things left for you to worry about and to pour precious energies into doing yourself, the sharper you’ll be when it counts.
The November AQHA World Show requires pre-qualification, so it’s only natural to want to kick back, relax, and rest your horse after you’ve earned the necessary points earlier in the year. But don’t make the common first-timer mistake of giving yourself a month to get ready. That’s not enough time, especially if you also go to school or work at a full time job. My trainers and I begin getting our game plan together four months out, which means we start in July.
One of the first things I do is schedule a thorough vet exam for LT, including vaccinations and bloodwork. If he has any issues, such as need for supplements, this leaves enough time for them to be corrected before the show. Keep in mind that you’ll be putting your horse into an ultra-stressful travel and show environment. He’ll need all the health help you can give him. Also remember to book a date for getting his pre-trip health and travel papers issued. You don’t want a forced delay in departure simply because results of your horse’s Coggins test aren’t back yet.
I also plot out my horse’s farrier appointments for optimal timing. LT’s shoes are reset every six weeks, and I want him freshly shod at least a week before he leaves for the two-week show. That leaves enough time for him to recover from any minor soreness, but also means I have to think ahead to get the timing right.
Other advice: This isn’t the time to make drastic changes in how your horse is shod, or to try out a new farrier. You could hurt your campaign more than you help it by venturing into the unknown.
If you’ll be hauling your horse yourself, use part of your lead time to get your truck tuned up, your tires checked (or replaced, if necessary), your trailer’s floor and wiring checked, and so forth. Plot your route. If you’ll need to lay over, know where you’ll stay and where you’ll put your horse for the night. If you intend to use a shipper, as some exhibitors do to minimize travel stress on themselves, get the space booked and confirmed early on. Ditto for your hotel room.
Get your order in early for any new clothing, especially if it’ll be custom and require fittings. Send your show hat out to be professionally cleaned and shaped. The latter task’s more important than you might think, because a clean, crisp hat makes a good first impression. At showing’s upper level, it’s all about the details, and this is one of the easiest for you to control.